Playing with heart, playing with friends - the Neil Wagner story

Neil Wagner is pumped up after taking a wicket Getty Images

It's the third morning - the first of the Wellington Test after two washed out days - and New Zealand have opened up the game. The ball pops in the air. Neil Wagner runs towards the catcher. Other fielders converge too. New Zealand begin celebrating Tamim Iqbal's wicket. Wagner's short-ball trick has had a role to play; the form batsman is out for 74.

Wagner's clenched fists punch the air upwards and his face goes all red. The idea of forcing a batsman, literally willing him into a pull or a hook shot that doesn't go well, or making him fend to a catcher nearby, looks thrilling from far away. It must be exciting from the inside too.

Wagner finishes the Wellington Test with career-best match figures of 9 for 83 to help his side burst to a big win within two and a half days effectively. He stands on 16 wickets in the Test series, 15 of which have come courtesy the short ball. Wagner has pitched it short for 82.43 per cent of the times he has bowled in the series, which is a whopping 258 out of 313 balls.

Wagner will tell you that there's nothing better than seeing the stumps blown away, or hitting the batsman's pad for a big appeal, but he enjoys how the whole team comes together to give him his wickets.

"You are gonna laugh about this but there's nothing better for me than bowling someone out, or even getting them lbw," Wagner tells ESPNcricinfo. "If you can beat the bat and question it, then you have done something special. My way of getting my wickets is a lot different. One thing, I do like the way I get my wickets, it is very team related, and brings the team together. The guys have to take the catches, so I feel I am part of a unit, rather than just a bowler doing individual skill."

New Zealand moving to No. 2 in the ICC's Test rankings is just reward for a side that has thrived in difficult circumstances. Wagner is one of their several match-winners who has given them that opening in Tests that shifts the game rapidly. Wagner is now ranked No. 5 among Test bowlers, the third-highest rating of all time among New Zealand bowlers.

"The first year I arrived in Dunedin, I was questioning and wondering if I will be able to do it. How I will be able to do it? It was very cold and I had one suitcase. I had to try to set up a living for myself."

For Wagner this doesn't matter, it is more about playing with friends. This has been the New Zealand cricket story in recent times - a group of cricketers pushing themselves for the team's cause, and giving friendship far greater importance. Wagner says that while his teammates keep him in good spirits as he keeps pounding in bouncers over after over, the bowlers at the other end also do the tough work of bowling into the wind just to give him the relief.

"It is an absolute pleasure to play with these guys," he says. "The way I bowl, it takes a toll on your body. It does get sore. It can be quite tough but you are doing it for your mates, people that you are really good friends with. It makes you feel like pushing the barriers.

"We are good mates on and off the field. I try to fit into what I can do the best. They have also done a lot for me. The number of overs they have had to bowl in the wind, for me to strike and for them to bowl without any luck, goes a long way. We enjoy each other's success. It makes you feel part of something really special."

Wagner has certainly come a long way, since arriving in cold Dunedin with little means almost a decade ago. After getting positive feedback from some of the Canterbury players, Wagner decided that New Zealand was going to be where he tried his luck, after struggling through South Africa's quota system. Wagner hasn't forgotten those who helped him in those early days in the country.

"I have never looked back ever since, to be honest," he reflect. "It is probably the best move I have ever made. The first year I arrived in Dunedin, I was questioning and wondering if I will be able to do it. How I will be able to do it? It was very cold and I had one suitcase. I had to try to set up a living for myself.

"It was tough going, but I was lucky to have a very good group of people in Otago cricket around me. They helped me a lot to become the player I am today. I am grateful to New Zealand cricket to give me the opportunity to live out my dream. As much as I have said that I want to play the World Cup, Test cricket has always been the pinnacle for me."

While he's now an established member of the Test side, the ODI dream keeps asking him for more. He missed the 2015 bus, and is likely to miss the upcoming World Cup as well. Wagner doesn't regret not playing the shorter format, and that is because he understands his bowling style is unique and requires him to condition himself differently. He isn't giving up, however.

"I haven't given up on it but I also don't want to make it a focus," he says. "In the past I used to have goals to want to really play ODIs and T20s for New Zealand, hopefully be part of a World Cup squad. It was my biggest dream. I have never really got close to it. Once I set my heart on a thing, it become too much of a focus. It became about me, rather than what I can do for the team.

"When I started to play, I tried to be a very good swing bowler if not the best, but there were people who were lot better than me doing this job, and way more consistent. So I tried to complement them, and tried to be as good as I could be, to make them successful.

"I feel that one day one guy gets the reward, the next day the next guy gets it. As a team we fight as a pack, and although one guy might get the accolade, you still play your role, and play your part for that guy to be successful on the day."

He is the perfect foil for the subtle variations of Tim Southee and Trent Boult, and the three-man attack has been key to New Zealand's success, particularly in the last three years. Wagner meanwhile wants to "keep doing his job", which is actually a formal way of saying that he wants to make batsmen jump around to his tune, as he softens them to take their wickets. That's his job, and whether anyone likes him for it or not, Wagner is certainly a spectacle. Cricket as it should be.